Monday, April 12, 2010

About a New York City Fire: but Mostly About the News and Assumptions

Update/revision (April 15, 2010)

Big cities are the hub around which all that is informed, cultured, and pretty much cool revolve, right?

Actually, there's some truth there. That dense concentration of humanity in metropolitan areas has the potential for generating a lot of power: economically, artistically, philosophically, and politically.

With the possible exception of economic power, living in a big city can be sort of like being online; or corresponding with pen pals; or reading books.1

All of which can also be done if you live near telephone lines, or have a satellite dish.

But I think that it's been a long time - at least - since urbanites could count on their place of residence guaranteeing them intellectual and cultural superiority over those who lived outside the city walls.

What set me off, writing this post, was news coverage of a fire. Lots of news coverage.

[from here, except for one hideously garbled sentence, the post is as it was originally published - it's now the first 2 paragraphs after "People are People"]
First of all, I think it's completely appropriate for The New York Times to report on the fire at 283 Grand Street. And, by the time it was put out, 285 Grand Street, and then to 289 Grand. The latter is on the corner of Eldridge Street.

The New York Times not reporting on that fire would be like the Sauk Centre Herald not reporting on a major fire near the corner of Sinclair Lewis Avenue and Elm Street. That fire is big hometown news.

I also think that the fire is national news for America. New York City is a major city - the last I heard, it's the largest port city we've got on the Atlantic. What happens in the Big Apple is important to the rest of us.

Before I forget it: A video:

"250 NYC Firefighters Battle 7-alarm Fire"

AssociatedPress, YouTube (April 12, 2010)
video, 0:47

"Officials say more than a dozen people, most of them firefighters, were hurt in an early-morning fire in Chinatown that burned more than four hours. There's no word on the cause. (April 12)"

Second, I really don't think that fire has much to do with the war on terror. I suppose there could be some sort of 'butterfly effect,' eventually, where an injured firefighter isn't there to deal with a fire that damaged a warehouse that - - - You get the idea. But directly connected? No. That fire was a huge issue for the people directly involved, but I don't think it'll measurably affect the nation as a whole.

Third, and this is the reason I'm writing this post: news coverage of this Sunday night fire is a pretty good opportunity for me to discuss the relative sophistication of small town hicks and city slickers.

Dunseith, San Francisco, and People

The smallest place I've lived in was Dunseith, North Dakota. The largest, San Francisco, California. In terms of area, Dunseith is about a mile long by a half-mile wide. San Francisco is very roughly a square, seven miles on a side. Dunseith covers maybe a 0.5 square mile, San Francisco 46.7 square miles (121 square kilometers, for those who think metric).

San Francisco is much more efficiently packed, though, so around 800,000 people live there. (U.S. Census 2008, via Google) Dunseith, as of 2000, was home to 739 people. (U.S. Census Factfinder)

There are differences between the people in San Francisco and Dunseith, of course. I'm basing this on my experience in San Francisco in the seventies and Dunseith in the eighties, but I don't think either has changed all that much.

For example, pull two people at random off the streets of San Francisco, and of Dunseith: and the two from San Francisco are less likely to be related to each other than the pair from Dunseith.

That doesn't mean that people in Dunseith are inbred freaks. That sort of thing happens in those postbellum potboilers that were popular several decades back. In the real world? Not so much.

Sure, in principle you could find a small town in America that's inhabited largely by weird-looking idiots whose ancestors married first cousins too often. And, again in principle, you could find a city inhabited by killer zombies, mutated by toxic waste from a Big Corporation factory. You're not very likely to find either, though.

People are People

Living in a community, of any size, it's hard to not notice people: the loud ones, anyway.

Based on my own experiences, I think that that some people who live in small towns have a very parochial outlook. It is hard to miss the impression that they really believe that what happens in their town is the most important thing in the world.

I also think that some people who live in big cities are equally convinced that what happens in their town is the most important thing in the world.

It's great to be interested in and connected to the place where you live and its people. But it's also important to remember that folks who live elsewhere are people, too. Even if they live in some small town you never heard of.

Ignorant, Isolated, Villagers? That's So 14th Century

I think there may have been something to the notion that people who live in small towns are, well, clueless commoners. In England, it would have been folks who didn't live within walking distance of London - were isolated, ignorant villiens, with an awareness that extended as far as the village church and manor house and no farther.

Then Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg introduced that dangerous, divisive technology we call movable type: and the world changed. Documents could be mass-produced and distributed as fast as a mounted courier could travel. Reading changed from a professional specialty to a basic skill. And those villiens had a source of information about the rest of the world.

Several massive cultural revolutions and two global wars later, many people take printed documents for granted. And some of them have been very, very upset about dangerous new technologies like cable television and the Internet.

Can't say that I blame them. Utter outsiders getting access to the sort of information that's been reserved for the 'right sort' has changed things before. I think it's changing things now.

And, as I've said, before: "Cultural Chaos! Divisiveness! I Like It!" It's not that I like chaos: but the applecart that's been pushed around America for the last several decades is long overdue for getting pushed over. In my opinion.

I've discussed this sort of thing before - if you're interested, check out "Related posts," below.

Some traditional (more or less - check out the AP YouTube video) news is listed below that.

First, though: Information-Age discussion of the Grand/Eldridge fire in New York City:Related posts:In the news:
1 Yes: reading books. It's an old information technology, but books are a sort of one-way communication from some of the best minds - and many of the mediocre ones - who've lived during the last few thousand years.


Brigid said...

Okay, I think I followed the point of the post. (It's that New York isn't the center of the universe, right?)

Oh, and one highly convoluted sentence: "I think, based on my own experiences, that some people who live in small towns who have a very parochial outlook, and who really believe that what happens in their town is the most important thing in the world."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian H. Gill said...


Oh, man: Now I don't know what I had in mind.

Thanks for the heads-up. I'll take a hard look at this post. A bit of revision may be necessary.

Brian H. Gill said...


I'm glad you spotted that sentence.

The idea that "New York isn't the center of the universe" is close to what I'd intended to say - but not quite.

I've added a sort of introduction which I hope makes my intent a little clearer.

Again, thanks!

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.